Prayer and Fasting (part 1)

In his book on fasting entitled A Hunger for God, John Piper wrote, “What we hunger for most, we worship.” I once put that quote up on Facebook, and some friends wrote comments about how it made them think of food! You hunger most for food. We laugh, but that is too true, isn’t it? “What we hunger for most, we worship.”

Some hunger for sexual desires, like Amnon in 2 Samuel 13 who longed so much for his beautiful half-sister Tamar that he became physically ill until he fulfilled his lustful desire and raped her.

Some hunger for possessions, like King Ahab in 1 Kings 21, who longed for Naboth’s vineyard, but who wouldn’t sell it to him and so the king sulked like a child. To give him what he wanted, his wicked wife Jezebel had Naboth murdered and Ahab’s lust for this property was finally fulfilled.

Some hunger for marriage, like King Solomon who according to 1 Kings 11:3, gathered for himself 700 wives and 300 concubines not caring about the fact that many were pagan women who eventually led his heart astray from the Lord.

So Piper is describing what the Bible so clearly teaches: What we hunger for most, we worship. But we need to be careful here, don’t we? Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 8:8, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” So the issue is never what we eat or what we do not eat or whether we fast or whether we do not fast. The issue for Jesus always is our heart, is it not?

So then, why should we consider fasting? Why have Christians for centuries decided to set aside eating a meal (or several days of eating) to dedicate themselves to prayer instead of satisfying their hunger? It is because fasting moves our attention off of the gift of food and on to the Giver.

Again, John Piper states for us the danger of forgetting this distinction and the danger for our souls if we do not stop and examine ourselves and our hunger:

“The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18–20). The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable. Jesus said some people hear the word of God, and a desire for God is awakened in their hearts. But then, “as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14). In another place he said, “The desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). “The pleasures of this life” and “the desires for other things”—these are not evil in themselves. These are not vices. These are gifts of God. They are your basic meat and potatoes and coffee and gardening and reading and decorating and traveling and investing and TV-watching and Internet-surfing and shopping and exercising and collecting and talking. And all of them can become deadly substitutes for God.”

John Piper, A Hunger for God, 14-15

You see, fasting doesn’t commend us to God. But it is a tool for us to test our heart attitudes about God. It does test our love and our hunger for God to see if we love Him more than these other things. Tomorrow I will look at Matthew 6 and describe what biblical fasting is, why people in the Bible fasted, and how we as Christians today should approach fasting and prayer.

Persistent Prayer

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.“For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.“Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone?“Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he?“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!

(Matthew 7:7–11, NASB95)

I suspect that we all have struggled at times to be consistent in our prayer times. In Matthew 7:7-11 (quoted above), Jesus is in the middle of his great Sermon on the Mount. In chapter six, the Lord gave an amazing lesson on prayer. But as you listen to what Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount the more you see that radical dependence that you and I need in prayer. 

  • We need prayer because he calls us to forgive our enemies (Matt. 6:14-15).
  • We need prayer because he says when we fast, it is to be with a humble heart (Matt. 6:16-18).
  • We need prayer because he warns us of the lure of material possessions and how they can steal away our affection for the Lord (Matt. 6:19-24).
  • We need prayer because Jesus told us that we aren’t supposed to get anxious, that he would provide for all of our needs (Matt. 6:25-34).
  • We need prayer because we aren’t supposed to unfairly judge others, but rather we need to examine our hearts to find healing and forgiveness for our sins first (Matt. 7:1-5).
  • We need prayer because we need to discern when those we preach the gospel to are so hard-hearted or against our efforts that we need to move on, all while keeping our own hearts tender and hoping that they will come to repentance (Matt. 7:6).

So, coming to chapter 7, it should be very clear to the reader how much prayer is needed. So, as Jesus begins to teach on the need to take every request to the Lord who is good and gives to his children, we see three ways in which we need to be persistent in prayer:

1. “Ask” your heavenly Father.

Every one of these five verses speaks about asking, and all of them point to the fact that if we ask our heavenly Father, he will answer our needs. Implied in asking is the need for humility. We ask when we do not have. Those who are self-sustained and have no need for God will not pray. And those who say they need God but do not pray, show by their lack of prayer that they do not truly believe that they need God. The prideful take care of themselves. The humble submit to the Lord’s will as they go to him in prayer.

2. “Seek” the Father’s will.

This reminds us of Matt. 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

The desire to be dependent upon God progresses from asking God in humble dependence to growing in prayer while seeking God’s will. Seeking gives us a visual picture of looking for something that is not clearly before us.

“We are seeking to uphold the world [in prayer], to save it from the curse of God, to protect the creation, to attain the ends of Christ’s death, to save ourselves and others from damnation, to overcome the devil, and demolish his kingdom, to set up the kingdom of Christ, and to attain and help others to the kingdom of glory. And are these works to be done with a careless mind or lazy hand? O, see, then, that this work [of prayer] be done with all your might!” – Richard Baxter in The Reformed Pastor

“Those that are about to undertake this work [of prayer] should do it with the greatest seriousness and consideration of the vast importance of the work, how great a thing it is to have the care of precious souls committed to them, and with a suitable concern upon their minds, considering the great difficulties, dangers, and temptations that do accompany it. It [prayer] is compared to going to warfare.” –Jonathan Edwards in The Salvation of Souls

3. “Knock” with persistence.

The verbs in verse 7, “ask”, “seek” and “knock” are all present imperatives. That means that they are commands that we are to continue to do, not just once, but persistently. That is why “knocking” is such a good picture of our need to be persistent. Jesus calls us to knock on prayer’s door persistently.

Some of you might ask “why?” If God hears our prayers, and we pray once, why doesn’t he just answer? Why does he make us pray so many times? It isn’t because he didn’t hear us the first time, or that he isn’t able to answer us the first time. He often doesn’t answer immediately for our benefit:

  • By praying persistently, God teaches us dependence. A person who prays once or twice and then tries to fix it themselves shows that they do not depend upon God. Delayed answers cause us to grow in dependence.
  • By praying persistently, God teaches us to seek his will and not our own. Sometimes we pray selfish prayers. When we pray over and over, we are forced to think about whether what we are praying for is truly God’s will. If not, we may change our prayers, or we may humble ourselves and submit to God’s will even if it is not ours.
  • By praying persistently, God teaches us patience. God is not on our clock, yet his timing is perfect. He hears us, but the timing of our answer to prayer is not so important to him as teaching us patient dependence upon him.

Persistent prayer requires greater faith and a focused sense of need. Have you found that your prayers are short-lived? Is it because you move on to do it in your own strength? Do you see how often that has made matters worse? Commit yourself to go to the Lord for all your needs, waiting patiently for him to answer you.

Maybe you have found that your prayers are short-sighted. You pray, but not for the great things God has called us all to do. You haven’t prayed for a great harvest of souls. You haven’t prayed for the salvation of your family member whom you believe will never get saved. You haven’t prayed for that obstacle to faith to be removed. You’ve prayed short-range, short-sighted, “safe” prayers. My friend—we have a big God. Pray big prayers. Don’t lose sight of what is eternal.

God’s Power and Prayer

“For Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

-Jesus

The sinfulness of man requires the power of God to overcome our nature, bringing us to Christ and setting us free from our sins, removing us from the kingdom of darkness and placing us into the kingdom of God, adopting us as sons of God and joint heirs with Christ, establishing both our ability to stand before the righteous throne of Almighty God as well as establishing our right to do so by virtue of Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to our account.

Therefore, our prayers are heard and answered upon this basis, seeing that God has opened up the doors of heaven, and by virtue of the cross of Jesus has welcomed us in.

In this post I’d like to briefly focus upon three prayer types: 1) Adoration and worship, Thanksgiving; 2) Confession; and 3) Supplication and Petition.

1. Adoration/Worship and Thanksgiving

The first prayer type (grouping three similar types together) is prayer of response. When we pray with thanksgiving and adoration, we are responding to the acts of God which reflect his power to redeem, provide, create and sustain. Some examples of these in the Scriptures are:

Adoration and Worship – Exodus 15, “Then Moses and the sons of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and said,“I will sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted;The horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea.“The Lord is my strength and song,And He has become my salvation;This is my God, and I will praise Him;My father’s God, and I will extol Him.“The Lord is a warrior;The Lord is His name.“Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea;And the choicest of his officers are drowned in the Red Sea.“The deeps cover them;They went down into the depths like a stone.“Your right hand, O Lord, is majestic in power,Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.” (Exodus 15:1–6, NASB95)

Thanksgiving – Psalm 138, “I will give You thanks with all my heart;I will sing praises to You before the gods.I will bow down toward Your holy templeAnd give thanks to Your name for Your lovingkindness and Your truth;For You have magnified Your word according to all Your name.On the day I called, You answered me;You made me bold with strength in my soul.All the kings of the earth will give thanks to You, O Lord,When they have heard the words of Your mouth.And they will sing of the ways of the Lord,For great is the glory of the Lord.” (Psalm 138:1–5, NASB95)

In your life God has shown you his mighty power, whether it has been through salvation, provision, guidance, providential care, healing or some other way. Does your prayer life reflect this?

2. Confession

Confession is made with the belief that:

  1. We have an omniscient God who knows our sin and we agree with him that we have transgressed his law. Prov. 5:21; Ps 51:3.
  2. We have sinned against our holy God who cannot look upon sin and is just in punishing our iniquity. Ps 51:4, 11.
  3. We have a merciful God who can remove the dark stain of sin through the blood of Christ’s substitutionary death upon the cross. Ps 51:7-10.

Some people, even Christians, live with the awful burden of past sins that they believe are unforgiven and unforgivable, even by God. 

First Corinthians 6:9-11 is the hope of Christ and the power of God demonstrated to the worst of sinners. It says:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Take your eyes off of your sin and put them on Christ! 

3. Supplication and Petition

Supplications and petitions can be placed roughly into two categories:

First, Personal prayer needs (for self and others). Biblical examples of such prayers include:

  1. For food (Matt 6:11)
  2. For healing/trials (2Cor 12:7)
  3. For persecution relief (Acts 12:6-19)
  4. For pain and suffering (Psalms of David, Job)
  5. For wisdom (James 1:5)

Second, Prayer for the Work of the Kingdom, including:

  1. For open doors of opportunity (Col 4:3)
  2. For strength in times of persecution (Acts 4:29)
  3. For boldness in the face of opposition (Acts 4:29)

In the area of supplications and petitions we can become reluctant to pray as we should. We need to answer the questions: Can he answer? and Will he answer? Consider the words of Jesus himself:

“And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mk 11:22-24)

“And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”” (Mk 9:23)

Do we use, “If the Lord wills” as an excuse for our lack of faith? Many things the Lord wills, but we often fail to ask (James 4:2).

Consider these verses:

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Heb 11:6)

“And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matt 21:22)

“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” (James 5:17-18) 

Do these verses cause you to imagine what God could do? Do they set your heart racing? Or do you find yourself doubting, and adding exceptions? The ability for your prayers to be answered is not so much about who you are, as much as it is about who God is! Pray dear friend!